Friday, December 12, 2014

"Narrative Echoes" and Recasting

Recently I've been talking about implicit sharing - the idea that players create and refine content as they play, and in turn that content is automatically merged into other player's worlds. I've also been talking about how that content needs to be something with emotional meat to it. It needs to be more than just a ship with specific stats - it needs to be a story, a character, an interaction.

There's not really any existing tools or approach to allow for that kind of development, so new tools have to be created.

My first stab at it is "recasting".

Any kind of game can use recasting, but it does require a very specific kind of play format. It needs to be:

1) "Open approach": issues and challenges can be approached via a variety of means. For example, social, technological, or physical. These approaches aren't simply pass/fail, but require time and multiple attempts in order to get success.

2) "Ally NPC": Players need to be able to create and direct allied NPCs to perform tasks, including open approach tasks.

3) "Enemy NPC": Enemy NPCs can be directed inside limits if compromised: convinced, threatened, seduced, coerced, whatever method.

These three concerns basically form a system where NPCs can interact with other NPCs in a repeated, prolonged manner. The system also allows for open-ended plot lines, since you can lay down a series of plot beats and let the player traverse them using open approaches.

The recast system requires all those elements, because the idea is that different players keep playing through the quest line, but from opposite sides.

It might be easier as an example.

You're a cop (A). There was a drunken brawl and it turned deadly. You're hunting for the survivor (B), who went into hiding.

Your avatar is nerdy, so you take a technical approach - tagging his phone, looking for credit card purchases, perusing security cameras. Your success is limited, so you call in a support NPC (C) - a social cop who is assigned as your partner. He gently interrogates barkeeps, relatives, known friends... and that approach gets more success. You eventually learn that he's staying at a friend's house (D). The friend is a big bruiser of a guy.

You can tackle this however you like, but that bruiser ally makes it dangerous to just pop in and arrest him. Since you've got a social ally, you convince the bruiser to help you safely arrest the perp rather than go in guns blazing or wait around for days for him to slip up.

Mission over. Pretty simple. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

The next player is a cop. You're tasked with defending a witness. You start with a partner - a big bruiser kind of a guy (D). Your avatar is a social cop, an investigator (B).

You quickly learn the details. A mafia agent is hunting this witness down. He's a nerdy sort of mafioso (A), so you expect he'll use technical searches. So you take proper precautions, largely going off-grid and getting people to help you out so you don't have to use phones or credit cards. Unfortunately, the mafia agent brings in a specialist, a greasy, fast-talking knifeman (C). They interrogate the people you were relying on, and seem to be narrowing in on your position.

You decide to go on the offensive. You try to talk to the nerdy mafia lead, looking for information or even an outright ally. You don't realize that the knifeman is threatening your partner even as you speak. Even as you're trying to convert his boss, their social goon is doing the same to your team. You never realize the partner you left behind to guard the target is being compromised.

In the final, climactic scene, you are betrayed by your partner. But the mafia leaves you alive, since the nerdy lead has come to like you. You're sure she'll show up again some other mission - all these characters will.

Mission over. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

The next player is a cop. You're tasked with hunting down a pair of killers. You built a big bruiser of an avatar (E), and your partner is a nerdy guy (A). You decide to hit the streets - you track and intimidate the people who might know anything, and quickly get a bead on the targets. They were using social techniques to stay off-grid, but your techniques didn't involve the grid.

The two are a slick, dangerous "dame" (B) and a knuckledragger (D).

On the second day, another cop approaches you. A social specialist with a good record (C). He tells you that he was assigned this case with you, and that you should work together. He says he can convince the knuckledragger to fold, although you can tell him not to. Even as you're working this out, your partner is being seduced by the dangerous dame... do you notice in time?

You might have figured out the basic algorithm.

See, the NPCs don't really have any algorithmic personalities or behavior. But you give them commands that make sense for them - do these things, interact in these ways. Then the next player plays from the opposite side. Even as they give their own side commands that make sense, they see the NPCs you originally commanded doing the things you directed them to.

This isn't quite the same as two players directly opposing each other simultaneously. Each player is playing a one-player game. But the NPCs remember and continue to act. The steady drift in the situation as more NPCs are introduced and refined introduces a feeling of personality.

For example, at this point there is a dynamic where the social defender (B) seduces the technical offense (A). As more characters are added and the situation changes, that behavior may not make a whole lot of sense. In some cases, one or the other could even be recast as a player character again! But the two characters are now locked together by "fate": the technical offense "wants" to be seduced by the social defender, and the social defender "wants" to seduce.

So even if you are the social defender and choose a radically different approach to the setting, the instant you meet the technical offense they will fall in love with you. Similarly, if you play the technical offense, you're not going to be able to resist the social defender, no matter how good your stats are. That's your personality.

It's also important to consider continuity between missions.

No mission starts clean. All the characters you created for last mission are used in the roles of this mission. The very first player - he created a social partner (C). That social partner will be recast into another social specialist role in the next mission, and in the mission after that. This leads to tense moments where your long-time allies are caught in a dangerous web. Enemy NPCs work the same way.

In a different setup, it'd make sense for it to even be player-linked. That dangerous dame might be the funhouse mirror version of the player that created her, and therefore her progression and activities could reflect that player's ongoing activities. That player could even find that there is a funhouse mirror version of you in their world, reflecting your behaviors and actions.

Anyway, as a first stab at a system, this seems like it'd work. I haven't built a working prototype yet, though.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Exploration Needs Implicit Sharing

A lot of people are chatting about No Man's Sky these days, although there's not much hard data. The general consensus seems to be "WHOA! Uh... what do you DO, exactly?"

I've played a whole lot of exploration games. No Man's Sky is hardly the first. Hell, Noctis is hardly the first. I used to explore randomized worlds built in Traveler, and even that wasn't the first!

I can safely say that No Man's Sky isn't pioneering a new genre. It's simply a very shiny example within that genre.

But here's the thing people often forget: exploration is only half a game.

Right now, virtually every exploration game is a combat-survival game, which is what No Man's Sky will be. Minecraft is like this, too. I don't much like combat-survival gameplay. Not only is it overplayed, it also damages and flattens the exploration elements. Exploration is boiled down to "what resources and enemies are in the area?"

There are a lot of things we could replace combat-survival with.

The most likely replacement is creation. I think there's a lot of room to allow players to create as they explore.

The line between creation and survival is sometimes a bit thin. I mean, isn't Minecraft about creation? And if you can build your own ship to your own specs in No Man's Sky, isn't that creation?

I draw the line on the other end of the content. It's not about how well you can create things, it's about how well you can share them. See, that feeds back into exploration: if you can uncover fragments of some other player's story, that lends a lot of power to the universe.

Most games like this have some kind of explicit sharing. Share craft files, share map files. Manually download and plug in. Even if there is no actual creation at all, exploration games can get the same kind of creative sharing by sharing specific locations that have extremely interesting features, such as when people share specific random seeds for Minecraft worlds.

Explicit sharing is clumsy. It's like scribes. It's time for the printing press. It's time for implicit sharing.

Pieces of your creations will be embedded in other people's experiences automatically.

Sharing ship layouts and bases is fine, but that's the most boring possible thing to share. Instead, these games need you to share personal stories and hooks leading to more content.

For example, I build a ship knowing it'll be shared automatically with other players. So I crash it into a planet. Now I know it'll be shared as a crashed vessel. So I do a survival run - building shelter near the ship, creating basic tools and clothes from the local wildlife, and so on. Now I know that anyone that stumbles across the vessel will also stumble across my survival attempt. This is becoming a story - someone crashed and survived. Who?

That's where the story ends if you're doing combat-survival gameplay. There's no in-game method for going any further with the shared content. But in a creation-based game, you could go so much further. Embed NPCs. Embed log files. Talk about a dangerous local disease and - bang - it exists. Talk about a plot that caused your ship to crash and - bang - it exists. Set up a plot line and watch visitor's party members get caught up in it as if it were their own. Set up a culture with new customs and traditions... they bury it under 10,000 years of sand.

This kind of creation is not something you see in modern games, because it's rather difficult to achieve. I honestly don't think it's any harder than allowing us to build our own space station. It's just that we've gotten so used to building our own space stations. We know exactly how to program that tool and polish that environment.

We don't know how to allow players to create stories. We don't know how to program that tool, and we don't know how to set up that environment to be compelling.

But... I think we will discover that. Soon.

Monday, December 01, 2014


I've thought a lot about NPCs in games, and one thing I tend to forget to mention is that there are some very simple guidelines. Follow the guidelines, you tend to get great NPCs.

The most basic thing to keep in mind: in order to care about an NPC, you have to see the NPC do things.

More basically, "screen time = appreciation"

There are a lot of games where the NPCs don't have much screen time, and you are expected to "choose" who you like best. Who you want on your party, or want to talk to every day in town, or whatever.

This is really the wrong approach. If you show a bunch of options and ask someone to choose, they have to choose based on stereotypes.

It's better to never give the player a choice.

Wait, let me explain a bit more.

"Screen time = appreciation" is a powerful concept. Let's look at Final Fantasy VII, since most people will be familiar with it. Let's think about which woman your teenage-boy self had the biggest feelings for. Just bear with me if you weren't a teenage boy, the point is easiest to make like this.

The three prospective crushes are Tifa, Aerith, and Yuffie.

After playing the game, Aerith was the one everyone remembered and felt most fondly for. That's not because of her design: a painfully quiet girl in a demure dress can't visually compete against the lure of Lara Croft. I mean Tifa. Even in terms of personality, Aerith has nothing going for her - she's got no personality at all. Tifa and Yuffie both have personalities - one reliable, one annoying, both better than the play-doh brain of Aerith.

But the player's preference for the NPCs doesn't come from their visual design or their personalities. It comes strictly from how much screen time they have.

Aerith has the most screen time by an order of magnitude. Also, the quality of her screen time is very high. Not only is she usually the core focus of the cut scene, the cut scene is also usually about her. Tifa, on the other hand, often participates in cut scenes as one of the group rather than solo, and is often focused on resolving the current situation instead of building herself up.

"Yuffie has solo screen time, and everyone hated her!"

Yup! Her screen time was followed by a long stretch of the player having to wade through annoying shit with the only reward being a return to status quo. So players hated her.

But although the setup made people hate Yuffie, they did remember her. They did care about her. They did appreciate her in line with her screen time. It's just that their appreciation was of the "arrrgh youuuuuuuuuuu" nature, rather than the more positive feelings assigned to the others.


All the characters in all games follow this same basic rule, as you can easily find out just by looking. The reason I used FFVII is because of the clarity of the situation: Aerith is worthless as a character. She has no personality, no arc: you could replace her with a lamp and the story wouldn't change in the slightest. But she was suuuuuper popular.

Because of screen time.

Similarly, Yuffie was quite unpopular.

Because of screen time.

Obviously, the design of the character does matter some. As does what they are actually doing on screen. Also, they have to actually be doing something of their own volition: just having them participate in battles doesn't really count.

Anyway, this basic assumption can be used to really change how you design characters, and you can see that in, say, the Dragon Age games.

Dragon Age games feature a lot of incredibly uninspired character designs, but everyone likes the characters because they feel real. You know why they feel real?


The characters banter with each other on the road, say character-specific combat lines, and spend an inordinate amount of time talking about their backstory if you go to camp. Combine this with a selection of character-specific missions, you have a good amount of screen time for each character. There's a lot of little details that turn "passive time" (wandering around, battle moments) into small amounts of screen time, which is powerful.

Moreover, you have a balanced amount of screen time.

Unlike FFVII, Dragon's Age gives every character a specific amount of specific types of screen time. Maybe there's 130 lines of banter dialog for each. Maybe they each have 3 sidequests. Maybe they each have 13 backstory conversations, all paced identically. Maybe they inject an identical amount of personality into their combat shouts.

Because of this balance, everyone appreciates a lot of different Dragon's Age characters. I even found myself appreciating characters I doubt I would have cared about in another game, such as the painfully generic templar or the old lady sorceress. Similarly, I found myself siding against the characters I would have picked as my favorites if I was just shown a picture and a catchphrase.


Say it with me-


The characters have balanced screen times, so I have an appreciation for all of them.

This does falter a bit here and there. You still tend to settle into one primary combat party (a huge flaw in all modern RPGs), and that affects your affections. Also, there's a ton of really dumb backstory. While it does give them more screen time, it is distractingly stupid.

But those are flaws I think could be addressed.

Anyway, that's my rant on screen time.